“Berlin is a city condemned always to become, never to be.” – Karl Scheffler, 1910
Perhaps no other city has taken up as much imaginary space over the last century as Berlin. It is a city forever in flux, not in the gradual, accumulated ways of most urban spaces, but with sudden, violent reinventions. Berlin is a place without definition, occupying a landscape unmeasured. It shifts endlessly between memory and forgetting, between future and past; it encircles the span of dreams.
In 1927 Fritz Lang made his great silent film Metropolis, an Expressionist dystopia whose cityscapes were both futuristic and fantastic. Emerging from the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic – an exuberant age of cultural and artistic flourishing that also gave us the architecture of Bauhaus, The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weill and the early Marlene Dietrich – Lang would have had little idea how equally dystopic Berlin would become in less than a decade. Like many others in the early 1930s – Jewish artists, German writers, concerned scientists, leftwing politicians – Lang emigrated with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party and the dark night of the Third Reich fell upon Berlin.
Hitler’s Berlin became the focal point of the Cold War in the aftermath of its destruction. The idea of a divided people, sundered by a concrete wall stretching over 150 kilometres through communities, families, transport links and shared history, fastened itself to the turbulent age, embodying the stark reality of the ideological conflict. The Berlin Wall stood in the collective imagination as much as in the real city; a symbol of totalitarian oppression. Remnants remain in place, as does a memorial line of differently coloured stone embedded into the pavement along its former route.
I walked the streets of Berlin for the first time this past autumn. Stepping over that line in the brilliant October sunshine, nothing happened. Nothing physical or easily discernible at any rate. But I felt a strange emptying, a falling away from the sure things of my life towards a space that was uncertain: the haunting of a place where lives were taken. I tried to replicate in my mind what the Wall entailed – the death strip, the towers – but could offer nothing to the scene. The emptiness of the place was its measure.
The fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a divided Europe, as well as the healing of a broken city. Since reunification, and the return of the German capital to Berlin, a process of astonishing reinvention has again swept over the city. From the glittering excesses of Potsdamer Platz to the wondrous and soaring cupola added by the architect Norman Foster to the ruins of the Reichstag, a city is rising and reborn. A Berlin condemned always to become: a place of ash, a world divided, a city of glass.
Much of modern Berlin is constructed of glass, so that the city was being continually reflected in my direction. But each sharply lit surface revealed an unusual angle, a hidden pattern of light and cloud, an unseen perspective of buildings and streets, a man or woman standing unexpectedly by my side. The glass unveiled another world, parallel but unreachable.
In Wim Wender’s film, Wings of Desire, angels descend from the heavens as men to wander the streets of Berlin, walking amongst its people and witnessing their joys and sorrows while only being visible to children. There is a sense of something ethereal about the city, something present but unseen, in the shadowing reflections. Whether it’s the ghosts of Berlin’s past, angels from its present or an unsettled fate in its future, an essence of the city’s spirit flickers in the glass.